Recording Casualties and the Protection of Civilians from Oxford Research Group (ORG) on Vimeo.

As the lone social scientist in a room of lawyers, philosophers and technicians last week, I was struck by a couple of things. One was the disconnect between descriptive and normative ethics, or rather questions of is versus ought. Everyone was speaking about either norms and rules, but whereas the lawyers treated existing norms and rules as social facts the philosophers treated them as questions of ethics that could and should be altered if necessary on their ethical merit. Another was the disconnect between material and social technologies. Engineers in the room seemed especially likely to assume that material technology itself evolved independent of social facts like laws, ethical debates, or architectures of governance, though they disagreed about whether this was for better or worse.
I suspect, to the contrary, that there is an important relationship between all three that bears closer investigation. To give an example, an important thread seemed to unite the discussion despite inevitable interdisciplinary tensions: that both material technologies (like weaponry or cyber-architecture) and social technologies (like international laws) should evolve or change to suit the demands of human security. That is, the protection of vulnerable non-combatants should be a priority in considerations of the value of these technologies. Even those arguing for the value of lethal autonomous robots made the case on these terms, rather than national security grounds alone.

Yet it bears pointing out (as I think the video above does quite well) how difficult that very factor is to measure.
How do we know whether a particular rule or law or practice has a net benefit to vulnerable civilians? How does one test the hypothesis, for example, that autonomous weapons can improve on human soldiers’ track record of civilian protection, without a clear baseline of what that track record is? Knowing requires both material technologies (like databases, forensics, and recording equipment) and social technologies (like interviewing skills and political will).

And make no mistake: the baselines are far from clear because our social technologies on casualty counting are lacking, because nothing in the existing rules of war requires record-keeping of war casualties, efforts to do so are patchy and non-comparable, and the results are data that map poorly onto the legal obligations of parties to armed conflict. Hence, an important emerging social technology would be efforts to standardize casualty reporting worldwide. Indeed such social technologies are already under development, as the presentation from the Oxford Research Group exemplifies. Such a governance architecture would be a logical complement to emerging material technologies whose raison d’etre is predicated on improving baseline compliance with the laws of war. In fact without them I wonder if the debate about the effects of material technologies on war law compliance can really proceed in the realm of descriptive ethics or must remain purely in the realm of the philosophical.

Anyway. These kinds of “emerging social technologies” or what scholars like me might call “norm-building efforts” received relatively little consideration at the workshop, which was focused primarily on the relationship between emerging material technologies (robotics, cyberspace, non-lethals, human augmentation) to existing governance architecture (e.g. the law of armed conflict). But I think – and will probably write more on this question presently – that an important question is how emerging material technologies can expose gaps and irregularities in social technologies of governance, catalyze shifts in norms, as well as (possibly) strengthen enforcement and adherence to those norms themselves if put to good use.